I think we all know who Dan Simmons is: the author of the Hyperion Cantos from over 10 years back – a stunning and deservedly well-received re-examination of some well-worn sf tropes casually interspersed with allusions and direct references to canonical authors and texts, both structural (e.g. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) and lyrical (e.g. John Keats). The Cantos duly won the Hugo in 1990 and some people assumed Simmons had done his bit for sf and that, like a white dwarf star after a nova, might settle down to a distinguished but rather less florid career...
‘Some people’ is a fool.
Somewhat contrary to my expectations Ilium is a fine return to form by Simmons that I wouldn’t be in the least bit embarrassed to give to the non-sf reader in my life to look at. On the contrary, I would thoroughly expect them to thank me for it. Here’s why.
Ilium consists of three entirely separate storylines; so separate, in fact, that you may wonder what they’re all doing together in the same novel. Their relevance to each other is a well-concealed and equally well-executed piece of plotting on Simmons’ part.
The first strand is set during the Trojan War, circa 3,000BC. This time, though, Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, Helen, etc, are all being carefully observed by reconstituted Homeric scholars (or ‘scholics’) from the future, employed by the Greek gods (the actual gods – fickle, scary and bad-tempered) and each given some nifty future gadgets (our future that is, not just the future of the Ancient Greeks and Trojans) to help them observe and yet be unobserved. Our specific scholic is one Thomas Hockenberry, originally a university professor from the late 20th century USA.
The second strand is set after the Rubicon virus has killed nearly every human being and the surviving post-humans have migrated to two orbital rings around the Earth. You wouldn’t know about this yet because, as with Hockenberry and the Ancient Greeks, his past is still in their future. The one million-odd survivors of humanity live in blissful, decadent luxury, rather like Logan’s Run. They have lived in this manner for millennia, fed, carried, healed and entertained by the android ‘voynix’ and servitor robots from birth until death exactly one century after they are born. That is until one of them manages to teach himself how to read.
The third strand begins on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, where a thriving community of ‘moravecs’ – sentient cyborgs who have evolved from early models sent from Earth in centuries past – have discovered a problem with quantum activity around a newly (and quite inexplicably) terraformed Mars. Four rather unhappy moravecs are sent to take a look – unhappy because they would mostly rather stay at home and continue their studies of ancient human literature (specifically the works of Proust and of the Bard himself, Bill Shakespeare).
All of this takes place in roughly the first quarter of the book. I can’t bring myself to reveal any more in this review because the voyage of discovery that Simmons’ takes us on through Ilium is a joy in itself. His is a complicated universe partaking of ancient and modern literature (modern for you and I, that is), of sf, some heavy theoretical science and some equally heavy historical reconstruction.
Perhaps oddly for an sf novel, it is the Trojan War sequences that work best in terms of spectacle, at least to begin with. Simmons has done a fantastic job of bringing events in The Iliad to gleaming, crashing, revolting life (so much so that I’ve had to go out and buy a copy to read myself). Perhaps equally oddly, it is the non-human moravecs who seem the most immediately likeable characters. Otherworldy academics (literally), their discussions of the relative merits of Proust’s and Shakespeare’s treatment of the human condition whilst traversing the icy seas of Europa and inter-Jovian space in, respectively, a submarine and a space-crab-like body are a joy to read.
This is not to say that the strand about our blatantly Eloi-like distant descendants is not a ripping yarn too; it’s a fascinating and often slightly sinister recycling of the old decadent-and-fallen-future-humanity-rediscovers-truth-about-its-past story. Although this particular strand does flag a little in the middle (too much chasing after enigmatic wise women to strange places, I thought), the competition from the other two story strands is very stiff, and towards the end of the book this story really picks up the baton and runs with it.
I loved this book, it’s got just about everything: high-flying big ideas tightly wrapped in a gripping narrative (towards the end every chapter closes on a nail-biting cliff-hanger!), but beautifully grounded by an intelligent and very, very human story that isn’t afraid to expect – encourage even – a little bit of willing erudition from its readers. If you’re stupid you’ll probably enjoy reading Ilium, but if you’re not stupid then you’ll enjoy it even more.